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3/20/2013

Let's Play Phantasy Star, Part 0 (Introduction)

Yep, I'm so demented that I'm not only immediately following up my previous LP with another one, I'm following it up with an LP of an entire series.  My second-favorite JRPG series, in fact: the legendary Phantasy Star tetralogy.  (I may also possibly play its handful of spinoffs once I'm done with the main series).

Why is it my second favorite, surpassing even beloved classics like the Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Shin Megami Tensei and (to a much lesser extent) SaGa franchises?  Two reasons.  One, it remained consistently good throughout whereas most series were pretty hit and miss.  Two, it was an outstanding and under-appreciated trendsetter.

No really, it brought things to the genre that other franchises would take years or even over a decade to catch up to.  Enemies with full attacking animations were a thing in Phantasy Star 1 on the Master System, but wouldn't be seen in Final Fantasy, SMT or Dragon Quest until the PS1 era (or in Dragon Quest's case, the PS2 era).  Phantasy Star 2 had a surprisingly grim, cyberpunk-inspired setting long before Final Fantasy even dared attempt it (and subsequently run it into the ground) and was among the first RPGs to kill off a prominent party member - a cliche now, sure, but at the time it was new and genuinely shocking to see.  It also recognized the repetitious nature of random battles  (a problem many RPG franchises still suffer from) and put in a couple of gameplay mechanics to expedite them a bit. Phantasy Star III, while flawed in design and having little connection to the rest of the series, still had some interesting merits of its own, with multiple story paths and a surprisingly large cast of characters as well as a pretty unique setting.

Finally, there was Phantasy Star IV.  A game still regarded one of the most well-crafted JRPGs of all time, and with good reason.  For one, it took storytelling in games to a new level with its expressive manga panel styled cutscenes, which were a pretty inventive way of adding some character and emotion to the plot despite the limited technicals of the system (FMV, while it existed before this game, wouldn't become the norm until the next era of consoles).  It also introduced two pretty innovative combat mechanics, namely "macros" and "combination attacks".  Macros basically enabling you to set up a series of combat turns in advance so you don't have to spend several seconds inputting each character's moves for each and every single combat.  Combos tie into that by letting you combine several characters' moves into one uber-attack that does massive damage.  Combining tornados with fire attacks to create massive columns of flame, holy energy blasts with sword slashes, missiles with lightning, all sorts of fun stuff.  Sure, games like Chrono Trigger and Breath of Fire IV would later improve upon the system, but for its time it was a pretty novel mechanic.

Do I even need to mention that the soundtrack fucking rocks?  It's easily some of the best and most memorable music of the era in spite of the Genesis' notoriously tinny sound chip.  Proof that it's not the power of the hardware, but how you use it that truly matters.

If you want to check the series out yourself, you have a few options.  The first is of course to pick up a Genesis and Master System (or Power Base Converter) and track them all down the traditional way.   Sega has since also re-released the games on several formats.  All four games are on the Wii Virtual Console and "Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection" compilation for the PS3 and Xbox 360 platforms.  The Game Boy Advance also has a compilation entitled "Phantasy Star Collection" that contains the first three games (albeit with a rather irritating save bug in the first game), and the PS2 and PSP both have a compilation entitled "Sega Genesis Collection" that contains 2, 3 and 4.  Importers can also pick up the "Sega Ages 2500 Volume 32: Phantasy Star Complete Collection", which not only contains Japanese and English versions of all four games, but all of the spinoff games as well - the Japan-exclusive Game Gear titles and all of the Sega CD text adventure games as well.  Of course, the latter games are only available in their native language.

That said, fan translations do exist for all of the aforementioned Japan-only titles.